Fri Jul 1st, 2011 at 03:59:04 AM EST
Last year, I detailed why China is The new high-speed superpower. Now, on 30 June 2011, the most important line in the rapidly expanding high-speed rail network opened: the one between the capital Beijing and the largest city Shanghai. A line of superlatives:
- although at 1,318 km, it is the third shortest of the eight main high-speed corridors of the emerging national network, it is the world's longest built as a single project;
- of this, 1,060 km (80.4%) is elevated or on viaducts, including a continuous 164 km near the Shanghai end that is the world's longest;
- to cover the distance in a short enough time, planned top speed was set to be the highest in the world: 380 km/h;
- consequently, it was also the world's most expensive project at Yuan 220.9 billion (23.8 billion);
- it is expected to become the world's second busiest.
A 16-car CRH380AL on a test run at Zhangxiazhen, where the line crosses the conventional line in the mountains between Jinan and Tai'an. Photo by user yaohua2000 from Skyscraper.com
The high-speed rail plans of the Chinese government started with this line, but it was such a big challenge that plans for a whole network emerged and several other lines were started before there was enough confidence to start this project. Then it grew ever more ambitious. In parallel, new trains were developed, which make for interesting comparisons with their Japanese and German brethren, and even a test train to attempt to beat the rail world speed record was announced.
However, after a change at the helm of the Chinese Railway Ministry, planned top speed was reduced to 300 km/h. The reasons included an intent to make high-speed services both more economical and more affordable for common people. Meanwhile, the annual budget for the construction of further lines was slashed by 30%. Even so, just with what is already in construction, most of the core network of a country the size of Europe should be in place by 2015 at the latest, bringing a sea change in the long-distance transport structure for 1.3 billion people.
The long road to Shanghai
Shanghai is China's financial centre and largest urban area (population: 18.7 million in 2011). Political capital Beijing is also the third largest urban area (14.2 million). The rail route between them also runs through Tianjin (6.8 million) and Nanjing (4.2 million). Trains running on conventional tracks (mostly upgraded for 200, even 250 km/h) with travel times just under 10 hours already carry over 100,000 passengers a day, while last July, Beijing–Shanghai was the world's fifth busiest air route at around 22,200 seats per day.
This level of demand is exceeded by one corridor in the world only, the one connecting Tokyo and Osaka in Japan (with three urban areas above 10 million along it). There, traffic is dominated by the world's busiest high-speed line, the Tokaido Shinkansen (around 138 million, or 378,000/day, even in GFC year 2009, and air/rail market shares of at least 82%). From the nineties, China looked for a similar solution for its similar transport problem. However, there was one difference that made a big challenge: length.
The rule of the thumb is that high-speed rail can beat air on relations it can cover in under three hours (though there are examples with four hours or more). The distance of Beijing and Shanghai is two and a half times that of Tokyo–Osaka (Vmax = 270 km/h), and more than two times that of Madrid–Barcelona (presently Vmax = 300 km/h), and still more than a third longer than Wuhan–Guangzhou (Vmax = 350 km/h on opening). So the planned line's length not only meant high costs, but going into uncharted territory with technology, calling for well-thought-through decisions.
The Chinese government took its time to consider multiple options. On one hand, as discussed in last year's diary, there were attempts to develop the technology domestically. In parallel, the government looked at the example of its neighbours, South Korea and Taiwan: the complete import of a foreign technology (trains, track, electrification, signalling) with technology transfer. The prospective competitors included high-speed rail makers from Japan, Germany and France (the last two initially as allies) as well as the makers of Germany's Transrapid maglev, who built their first and only commercial line between Shanghai and its airport. However, with the years, nothing came of this: the domestic development proved too problematic, while the foreign producers found themselves in endless fruitless talks.
Instead, a route was chosen that resulted in the least dependence on any foreign producer and the best circumstances for continued development of domesticated technology:
- Not waiting for line construction, China ordered high-speed trains with technology transfer – from all three major West European rail giants and a Japanese maker at the same time.
- The government kept strategic control over infrastructure development, including the contracting of actual construction work: there were no general contractors for an entire line.
- Consequently, a common high-speed line standard was developed, which combined track technology imported from Europe, the wider Chinese cross-section, and superstructures with mass-produced prefabricated elements.
The first section to be built was the Beijing end of the Beijing–Shangai Passenger Dedicated Line (PDL), to be ready for the 2008 Olympics, as a quadruple-tracked 200 km/h section. However, advances in construction technology domestication and the big motivation of national prestige led to escalating ambitions: plans were quickly upgraded to a 300 km/h elevated line on its own alignment, then design speed was raised to 350 km/h before opening, then it was decided that this 117 km line to Tianjin shall become a mere "intercity" line and the Beijing–Shanghai PDL shall get its own elevated tracks for even higher speeds.
Trains for 380 km/h (vs. trains for efficiency)
When commercial traffic started on the Beijing–Tianjin Intercity Railway, it was presented as the world's first train service with a top speed of 350 km/h. However, this was pushing the technology, as the trains used for the service were developed for 300 km/h, and indeed actual top speed was later constrained to 330 km/h for one train type while another was withdrawn. After this, a series of minor modifications were developed for both types, so that regular 350 km/h could be achieved at least in spurts on the Wuhan–Guangzhou PDL two years later.
To achieve travel times over the Beijing-Shanghai PDL that were competitive with airplanes, the railway ministry wanted to go even bolder: 380 km/h. Despite my scepticism, the development of suitable trains – in fact three different types at the same time, all three in both 8-car and 16-car versions – proceeded apace. What's more, while I criticised the original development plans as still too loose, the effort got more serious, with a long testing programme at proper speeds of up to 420 km/h. Meanwhile, however, the national prestige aspect of the three new types was underlined by a re-classification: originally foreseen as sub-classes of classes named CRH2, CRH3 and CRH1 respectively, they became the CRH380A, CRH380B and CRH380D.
I already introduced CRH380D last year. This (still in development) train is a member of Bombardier's relatively new and untested Zefiro platform, which had only one previous delivery version before: the CRH1E. The other two, however, are developments by the Chinese industry. In both cases, the foreign supplier recently came out with a further development for its domestic market, which makes for interesting comparisons.
|The Chinese rail industry put most development effort into the CRH380A. In particular the re-designed nose with 10% less air resistance bears almost no resemblance to its origin, the E2 Series Shinkansen. Together with several other changes, aerodynamic noise was reduced 5%, while a number of running gear changes improved stability and ride comfort.|
In a trial run last December on a completed section of the Beijing–Shanghai PDL, the first 16-car unit achieved a new national speed record of 486.1 km/h, also a world record for an unmodified series unit.
|A 16-car CRH380AL (L for long) leaves Shanghai Hongquiao for a test run in May 2011. Here the Beijing–Shanghai PDL is flanked by a four-tracked conventional line (left) and the also high-speed Shanghai–Nanjing Intercity Railway (right). Photo from 10000 Link|
In contrast, JR East's new E5 Series Shinkansen is meant for only 320 km/h, and even that shall be reached in steps. This train, however, was not simply faster: it is meant to consume an amount of energy, emit a level of noise, and stop in a braking distance similar to that of the earlier 275 km/h E2 Series. Compared to its Chinese step-sister, the nose aerodynamics is more outlandish, the pantograph (the biggest single contributor to air resistance above 300 km/h) has few external parts and a much lower cross-section, the high-voltage train cable was 'buried' into the roof of the cars, and the bogie shrouding is complete. Ride comfort is enhanced by complete active suspension and a tilting ability. The March 2011 début of the type was overshadowed by the Great Tohoku Earthquake, which also damaged its line north-west of Tokyo.
A brand-new E5 on a test run near Miyagi, north of Sendai, in October 2009. Photo from Tec-chan's Shinkansen blog
The CRH380B looks little different from its CRH3 predecessor, or its sisters in Siemens's Velaro family. This is less of a surprise considering that the original Velaro carbody (the one for Spain) was designed for 350 km/h. But several details changed: a sturdier windshield, more streamlined humps for pantographs and air conditioners on the roof, rubber bands to seal gaps between cars, modified underframe shrouds at bogies. In a test run on 9 January 2011, the second 16-car unit, shortened to 12 cars, again broke the national record with 487.3 km/h. A further ordered version, the CRH380C, got a slightly redesigned nose and some Shinkansen electronics.
A 16-car CRH380BL nears Beijing South at the end of a test run. The slab tracks of the high-speed line are flanked by the ballasted tracks leading to a giant new train depot. Photo by user yaohua2000 from Skyscraper.com
The new Velaro D, or German Railways (DB) class 407, is again a model for just 320 km/h but higher efficiency. The most visible difference to the CRH380B is the roof: it was raised continuously to the level of the air conditioners, a solution reducing air resistance more than any tinkering with hump shape. This alone brings 5–8% for the entire train, with all other changes the reduction is up to 20%. For this, weight was saved elsewhere. Another novelty is the crash-optimised front with vertically opening coupler cover. The trains will enter regular service early next year, and some are to cross the Channel Tunnel and serve London from late 2013.
The first DBAG class 407 crosses the Rhine–Main–Danube Canal on the Nuremberg–Ingolstadt high-speed line. Photo by user NIM rocks from ICE-Treff
Not so fast
China's highest-speed ambition seemed unstoppable. The Beijing–Shanghai PDL itself was finished early and opening was brought forward by half a year. Meanwhile, two test trains for 400 km/h service speed were built (a CRH380A and a CRH380C with added powered axles), and plans were announced for a further test train intended to break the world record of 574.8 km/h (set by a French TGV in 2007).
But then, in February 2011, the railway minister who oversaw the high-speed push was removed on charges of corruption, and under his successor, the plans changed: top speed was reduced to a 'mere' 300 km/h, lengthening the shortest Beijing–Shanghai trip to 4 hours 48 minutes.
Three reasons were named: better economics due to lower operating costs; affordability to common people due to lower fares enabled by the lower operating costs; and increased operating safety. Let me start a closer look at these arguments by quoting my own list of difficulties to overcome, which made me doubt the 380 km/h ambitions three years ago:
- Economics of energy use. At high speed, air resistance is the overwhelming factor, and its force increases with the square of speed. You need to multiply force with speed to get power, so power goes with the cube of speed: that means +28% just from 350 to 380 km/h, +103% compared to the 'standard' 300 km/h!
- Noise emissions. Unsurprisingly, the relationship with speed is almost the same as for traction power. But noise emission limits are not flexible, unlike train power and ticket prices, so this is a more pressing concern.
- Ride comfort. The stronger forces mean more carbody motion, which is fine on a test run, but regular passengers might not like it.
- Track wear. Stronger forces mean more strain for rails and trackbed, which means they have to be replaced quicker. High-speed tracks are rather expensive. (Just the other day, on the Cologne–Frankfurt line that sees 300–330 km/h traffic, it was found that rails have to be replaced much earlier than planned.)
- Safety and train frequency. A lot of potential accident factors (side winds, track fatigue, etc.) are more severe at higher speeds, and there may be unknown new factors, ones you would rather discover in multi-year top speed test runs. One of these factors is signalling. It is critical because of the opposed needs of having a safe stopping distance between trains, and running trains as frequently as possible. No system proved itself yet at 350, not to mention 380 km/h, so you either risk accidents during signal trouble or have to run much less trains than possible at somewhat lower speeds.
Considering the first point, the improvements with the CRH380A look less impressive. The Chinese media quotes a rule of the thumb that above 320 km/h, costs double with every 10 km/h increase – that would be an even steeper function than just energy use (my point 1), so I suspect this also covers an experience of increased maintenance costs.
Now, operating cost is just one of the factors behind economic performance, and not even the most important. On the cost side, there is also the cost of the infrastructure (annualised in the form of depreciation charges), and the cost of financing (interests). On the income side, there is ticket income, determined by fares and demand (ridership). And the way these factors developed has similarities with the story in Taiwan:
- The Railway Ministry of China (and its co-financiers in individual projects) chose financing with credit that's not long-term and low-rate enough.
- Ticket prices were set between conventional train tickets and airline tickets, assuming that riders of the latter will switch to the cheaper offer and riders of the former will swallow it once those services are scaled down. Note however that the conventional train–plane price gap was much wider in China than in developed countries, meaning that for some train riders changing to high-speed trains, fares quadrupled.
- Actual traffic on the first opened PDLs was then a half-success: while railway ridership increased massively, and airlines were beaten to a punch, ridership was still behind expectations, and the lines operated at a loss.
Some examples. Regarding the crushing of the airline competition: the number of passengers on flights competing with the Wuhan–Guangzhou PDL dropped by half in just one year, and airlines withdrew completely from the Wuhan–Nanjing route after the launch of 'only' 250 km/h fast services. As for ridership and income: compared to conventional train ridership the year before opening, the Beijing–Tianjin Intercity Railway carried twice as many in its first year and three times as many in the second; but will need four times as many to break even, burdened by loans maturing in 5 to 10 years with interest rates above 6%.
It is hoped then that a new operating concept, with two service types with top speeds of 300 km/h resp. 200–250 km/h and cheaper fares, will draw more people with lower incomes and make lines break even. And speed reduction is not the only new measure for economic efficiency sold as part of the affordability drive for common people: also, the luxury class seats of the current airline-style three-class seating are being removed from the trains, to make way for the (higher capacity) traditional two-class seating.
A CRH5 on a test run on the Beijing–Shanghai PDL passed a CRH1 on the parallel conventional line at Zhangxiazhen in the mountains between Jinan and Tai'an. These types will operate the cheaper, 250 km/h max services. Photo by user yaohua2000 from Skyscraper.com
Now, as someone who criticised the policy of setting HSR fares higher than conventional rail fares and lauded a different approach (see Puente AVE), I can only applaud this 'democratising' of high-speed rail in China. But, as much as I'm tempted to see a confirmation of my 380 km/h doubts, I don't think the economics is the whole story. For, none of the economic arguments would be one against operating three different types of high-speed services on the Beijing–Shanghai PDL. If, in addition to the 250 km/h and 300 km/h services, some non-stop trains would run at 350–380 km/h and with an elevated fare, the increased train and track wear would be less significant, while it would be possible to please budget-conscious former conventional rail passengers and travel time focused former airline passengers at the same time.
Lacking insider information, I can only speculate on the real reason. On the technical side, one possibility is that cracks appeared in some critical component during testing (axles would be the primary candidate; for others see my comment a year ago). Another is that signalling didn't work reliably during tests (see point 5 in my list quoted at the start of the section). It is also possible that signalling would have worked at 380 km/h, but with trains of three different speeds on the line, capacity would have been limited too much. However, there is also the possibility that the reason is outside the railway sector: maybe the new powers that be were well-disposed towards those who wanted to avoid a collapse of domestic airlines with the loss of the most lucrative connection.
|Then again, speeds won't be reduced on all existing lines: the Beijing–Tianjin and Shanghai–Hangzhou intercity lines shall maintain higher top speeds.|
|An eight-car CRH380A test-running on the Shanghai–Hangzhou Intercity Railway in September 2010, looking south-west from Jiashan South Station. Train services on this line reach 350 km/h. Photo from Railcn.net|
The emerging network
While the Beijing–Shanghai PDL is opening, several more are in construction or planned with opening scheduled for the next few years.
Updated sketch map of China's PDL network and other fast lines, adapted from Wikipedia's PDL network map (click to enlarge in-page).
Line style indicates top speed:
- Thick: 300 km/h or higher
- Medium thick: 250 km/h
- Dashed medium thick: 200 km/h with some 250 km/h sections or speed-up planned
- Thin: 200 km/h
Colours indicate progress:
- Green: upgraded conventional line in service
- Blue: new line in service (purple: Beijing–Shanghai PDL)
- Red: in construction
- Grey: planned
Here, too, the new railway minister is putting on the brakes. On one hand, he criticised his predecessor for channelling funds into ever newer high-speed line projects that weren't part of the original strategic plan. On the other hand, he cut the annual construction budget from Yuan 700 billion to 500 billion (c. 75 billion to 54 billion), which should mean a slow-down even for existing projects.
Construction of the Huilong Viaduct along the Guiyang–Guangzhou PDL. Photo from China Railway 13th Bureau Group
Still, even with the slowdown, given that most projects are already in advanced construction, I expect almost the entire basic network to be in service by 2015 at the latest. And this is something more than spectacular: a new mode of transport is emerging practically overnight as a complete system, something passengers will view as a medium between any two major cities rather than a possibility on some choice relations; and something the operator can operate efficiently as every part was built to the same standard. The only downside is the risk that sudden needs for track maintenance may arise simultaneously.
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